A Fair Work Commission ruling has found that it is “desirable” to have employees working from the office and that this can improve productivity and support, in a potential blow for Australians looking to continue working from home.

New powers to appeal an employer’s refusal of flexible working requests were included by the Labor government in its Secure Jobs, Better Pay laws and came into effect in July. These were put to test for the first time at the Fair Work Commission in a case between salary packaging provider Maxxia and one of its case advisers, Charles Gregory.

For most of his employment, Gregory had been working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Maxxia now has a hybrid working structure, with its employees required to work 40 per cent of their hours from its office.

Gregory put in a request to work all of his hours from home in mid-August, saying it was necessary due to being the parent of a child and that he was seeking custody every second week.

He also included information on a medical condition.

Maxxia rejected this request, instead saying Gregory could work 20 per cent of his hours in the office initially, then 40 per cent from the start of October.

Gregory’s role involves responding to customer enquiries. The company said it was required to answer 99 per cent of calls within three minutes, and all emails within two business days, and that it faces significant penalties if it doesn’t meet these benchmarks.

The company argued that Gregory’s productivity was too low, and that his office attendance would be “advantageous to observe and support [him]”.

Formal complaint

Gregory lodged a complaint with the Fair Work Commission in early September and after conciliation failed, a public hearing was held in late October.

Commissioner Christopher Platt found in Maxxia’s favour, saying that the company had genuinely tried to reach an agreement on flexible work with Gregory to accommodate his needs, had regard for the consequences of the refusal, and was on reasonable business grounds to reject the request.

“The worst of the pandemic appears to have passed and the respondent is now within its rights to require its employees to return to the office in accordance with their contracts of employment,” Platt said in the decision.

In a ruling that could have wider ramifications for Australians seeking to continue working from home following pandemic restrictions, Platt said there were numerous advantages to employees returning to the office.

“I accept that it is desirable for there to be face-to-face contact within a workforce team,” he said.

“I accept that a face-to-face presence would allow for observation, interaction and (if necessary) coaching to improve Mr Gregory’s productivity and provide him with greater support.

“I accept that Mr Gregory’s knowledge and experience could be more easily accessed by less experienced team members on a face-to-face basis.”

Under the National Employment Standards, a worker may request flexible working arrangements under certain circumstances, including if they are pregnant, a parent with care of a child of school age or younger, a carer, has a disability, or are experiencing family and domestic violence.

Wider impact

There are differing opinions on whether the decision will have a wider impact.

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Andrew McKellar welcomed the recognition of the importance of returning to the office.

“This decision reinforces the benefits of face-to-face working on workplace productivity,” McKellar told the Australian Financial Review.

“While we know that flexible work arrangement requests must be considered on a case-by-case basis, it is encouraging that the Fair Work Commission has recognised the importance of working in the office.”

The decision could potentially be used by other workplaces to deny work from home requests, Herbert Smiths Freehill employment partner Natalie Gaspar told the Australian Financial Review.

“It demonstrates the Commission’s preparedness to accept that in-office time is sometimes necessary for productivity and training purposes,” Gaspar said.

But the Australian Council of Trade Unions said that the “single member decision” is of “little broader significance”.

Working from home skyrocketed in popularity due to the pandemic and many Australians want to continue this, despite numerous workplaces pushing for a return to the office.

A recent study found that despite this push to return to the office, employees are increasingly basing their loyalty on whether they are allowed to work flexibly.

Australia was also recently found to be the 25th best place in the world for remote work, with high cost of living pressures leading to the slide down the list.